Saturday, November 29, 2014

Global Warming Denial: What Does it Take? A Case Study of Climate Change Denialists


In the mid-1970s after the consensus dismissed the bullshit idea of "global cooling," serious concerns were raised about global climate change: its impact on the earth, and how we were (and still are) contributing to it. Vast research efforts were put into this issue, and now the international community is on board to combat the effects of global warming. The official consensus is now that global climate change is real, it's happening, and we're responsible for it.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently reported that this past October was the fifth month this year to reach record temperatures; and that unless we find some drastic decline in the temperature in November and December, 2014 will mark the hottest year on record. The effects will be catastrophic if global temperature means continue to increase as they have been. Some infectious diseases and parasitic insects will likely multiply at alarming rates from increasing heat, the sea levels will rise from the melting of the ice caps, and of course it will be very, very hot. The effects of global warming are numerous, and we're all ready to jump on board to help remove our carbon footprints and mitigate the effects of this dramatic rise on global temperatures. Or are we?

This blog has covered global warming denial in the past, and the results have been quite hilarious. Some denialists dispute the consensus over global warming, which has been addressed here. To summarize, there are numerous studies which all suggest that at least 90% of scientists agree that global warming is happening and that we're responsible for it. These studies all had different methodologies, but came to concordance on the conclusion. Denialists dispute the validity of these studies, but when the results have been replicated by multiple different methods, it's hard to argue that they're all wrong. Some also dispute based on the wording of the questions asked, suggesting that they're ambiguous and that even 'climate realists' would respond "yes" to most of the questions. This is, of course, a major semantics debate; and in the face of a semantics debate, it's helpful to apply Occam's razor and take the more parsimonious conclusion. The result is simple: the consensus on global climate change is solid.

Others will outright ignore the consensus and try to argue based on their knowledge, or what they've read online, that global warming isn't happening. Many of these arguments, as well, have been addressed on this blog. I won't go through a summary of those talking points, but I would highly recommend reading the linked post. Basically, scientific evidence is also not on the side of denialists (no surprise there).

Given the evidence, it's fairly obvious that denialists of Anthropogenic Climate Change (ACC) don't have a leg to stand on. Why, then, do they persist? What does it take to convince a denialist?

Extreme Weather

Many scientists up until now have believed that with enough droughts, floods, heat waves and other examples of extreme weather, climate change "skeptics" (quotes because I don't like this warm, fuzzy term being used for such persistent denialists) will come to terms with reality and start addressing it appropriately. This isn't without evidence [Hamilton & Keim, 2007; Egan & Mullan, 2012], and seems reasonable enough - both studies have displayed that there is a correlation between regional weather experiences and political orientation concerning global climate change. It makes sense that if someone is getting the worst of something, they are more likely to support a theory which addresses their concerns.

As recent research shows, however, this hypothesis is not very robust and has mixed support. Moreover, it is only one piece of the puzzle. The winter of 2012 was the fourth warmest winter on record going back to 1895; and yet when asked whether or not they attribute this to climate change, only 35% of respondents said yes [McCright et al., 2014]. Granted, the study does find that individual experiences with weather anomalies has a significant effect on perceived warming; however, it still shows that even direct consequences of global warming aren't enough to convince some people. How about that? Climate change denialists are Monty Python's Black Knights.

Political Party

Although intuitive, the study by McCright et al. clarifies that there is an association between political party identification and climate change denial. This is not the first time the lead study author has established said association [McCright et al., 2011], but it raises an important question of politicization of climate change and how it affects people's perceptions of the issue.

We should all be familiar with the efforts by Bush aides to quash research and publication thereof concerning climate change. This was a major strike for party politics in science - governmental influence can be non-transparent in some scenarios, and the officials we have in government may be influencing the publication of important scientific research. Publication bias is definitely not an unheard of phenomenon, but I believe most Americans like to think that "the system" is not so corrupt. Perhaps it is. Certainly McCright thinks so: his research and examination of conservative anti-reflexivity and its impact on climate science and policy speaks for itself [McCright & Dunlap, 2010].

Don't think that conservatives are exclusive in science denialism, however. While conservatives are more likely to take a stance against global warming, liberals are more traditionally associated with anti-GMO sentiments [Lewandowsky et al., 2013], although this connection is not too strong. I can support that conclusion, however. Regardless, it stands to be said that conservativism and free-market ideology serve as good predictors for rejection of science.

Denialism can come from within the scientific community as well. Naomi Oreskes, who is well known for her study which contributed to the establishment of public knowledge of a scientific consensus on climate change [Oreskes, 2004], wrote a book, one that I would highly recommend, with Erik Conway on the political underpinnings and implications of research on several key and contentious issues in historic scientific discourse entitled Merchants of Doubt. The authors draw attention to seven issues - acid rain, smoking, secondhand smoking, the ozone hole, global warming, the Strategic Defensive Initiative, and the banning of DDT - and clarifies the scientific consensus on all of them, as well as pinpointing which small groups of scientists have been largely responsible for the unfounded charges against the consensus, which science reporters and internet bloggers had uncritically repeated.


I and my coauthor share the concerns raised by Oreskes and Conway regarding science reporting and internet blogging of scientific research, which has become very weak and uncritical in recent years; though I can't argue from experience that it has ever been too strong. Needless to say, the internet may play an even more crucial role in the public's perception of climate change that one may think.

This gets into a research topic that is of personal interest to me. I've always been interested in the ideological implications of internet filter bubbles and how web pandering to people of specific interests serves to uphold the biases and preconceptions they may have on an issue. Not everyone is familiar with filter bubbles, so let me provide two examples of how a filter bubble works: both of which are very real.

Let's use the example of hypothetical person A (HPA) and hypothetical person B (HPB). HPA (who I have modeled after myself) is very fascinated with international politics and loves to look at the historical context which led up to certain key events in American history, such as 9/11. Perhaps he has read a few books on the issue, such as The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright. When he looks up "9/11" on Google, then, his first results will most likely be the Wikipedia page and a few books and articles on the situation, or maybe recent news articles regarding the issue.

HPB (who I have modeled over an old administrator of mine) is a libertarian, possibly a conspiracy nut, and despises the American government. He likes to look for all the disgusting things America has done - some of them being true, such as the atrocities at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. He's also interested in the evidence that the planes which crashed into the Twin Towers could not have caused the destruction they did, or at least in the same manner. There had to be bombs, and someone had to plant those bombs. Thus when he searches "9/11" on Google, his first result may be from Loose Change.

Let me give the other example: very recently, I wanted to look up my internet download/upload rate and see if it's comparable, or at least adequate, to modern standards. I typed into Google "is X mbps a good download rate," expecting a solid response from someone on a torrent website I've visited before. To my incredible surprise, the very first result was a thread in Stormfront. Why? Because I've also been involved in the debates over race that Lex has gotten herself into, and so despite absolutely clearing all of my search history and browser cookies/preferences, that was the result I got. When I used a web proxy, however, and searched the same thing, the Stormfront thread did not appear.

This is how filter bubbles can affect the results of your research, where you may think you're looking into something objectively, but in reality your search engine is pandering to your interests and giving you things it thinks you will like. While there is little research in this arena as far as I'm aware of, I think this is a very real cause of concern for scientific research and public engagement in the scientific discourse. The internet may be playing a dangerous role in inhibiting discussion and polarizing political and social players - or at least, a more dangerous role than we already know to be the case. While not covered heavily, I believe this can also explain part of the reason individuals persist in climate change denial, and many other types of pseudoscience, such as water fluoridation.

I gave a lot of attention to this section, but it's important to mention and make people aware of what they're potentially subjecting themselves to when they research things online. It's not very often you can extend topics of such specification beyond their initial scope like this.


This is perhaps the biggest issue regarding climate change denial. One cornerstone paper in Nature displayed that conservatives who are more scientifically or mathematically literate are even less likely than their liberal counterparts to accept global warming [Kahan et al., 2011]. This suggests that education cannot, by itself, mitigate climate change denial when political polarization is an overwhelming variable in the mixture. That being said, new research does have some interesting statements to make, both about ideology and about education.

Since it seems to be the case that science literacy can intensify polarization, as shown by the Kahan study, a better case may be to examine adolescents, perceived as a more receptive audience. Testing the level of climate literacy in teenagers, it was found that individuals with more individualistic worldviews were 16.1% less likely than communitarians to accept global warming at initial stages [Stevenson et al., 2014]. At low levels of literacy, individualists were even less likely to accept global warming - 24.1% less likely than communitarians; however, at high levels of literacy, the gap essentially closes, and the effect of climate literacy and education has a much more positive effect on individualists than communitarians. These results seem to suggest that while polarization may be an overwhelming factor in adults, early intervention and science education for adolescents and younger, equally receptive audiences can mitigate climate change denial.

Of course, it seems intuitive that educating people would help, right? Then there are those who would call it "indoctrination," but...


The "while male" effect describes how men tend to judge risks lower than women, and whites judge risks lower than blacks [Finucane et al., 2010]. I'm not too well read on this particular aspect and its contributions to climate change denial, but the evidence seems to suggest there is some association. The aforementioned study by Stevenson et al. did find a significant difference in global warming acceptance between males and females, whites and non-whites; non-whites and females were more likely to accept global warming than whites and males, thus invoking the "white male" effect. There is no solid explanation for these things - Finucane et al. suggests a complex interaction between the two factors. At an initial glance, I could say that one confounding variable would be (of course) political ideology, since non-whites and females are more likely to be liberal than whites and males. The answer, however, is not clear.


There are a multitude of reasons behind climate change denial and why it persists against the scientific consensus. Political party and the internet, in my opinion, play the biggest roles in the issue. As far as "what does it take," I think the most prospective mitigation effort would have to be science education at an early age. I recall very limited environmental science education from my early years in public primary school, and even more limited in parochial secondary school, and so am fortunate that I was not convinced at my younger ages that ACC was a hoax. I know others, however, who were not so fortunate.

There was a book I used to read a lot when I was very little, If You Give a Pig a Pancake. I think the action-consequences relationship between pigs and pancakes, and all of the related stories I read of the same syntax, describes the associations I reviewed in this article fairly well. I would have entitled this post If You Give a Denialist an Evidence, but the flow wouldn't have been good (not just because of the horrible grammar), and it also wouldn't have fit into the "Global Warming Denial" series, nor would it have revealed what I would be covering in the post itself. All my readers who got through this post in its entirety, however, may call it whatever they please.

Thank you all for reading, and I'll see you all next time!


Egan, P., & Mullin, M. (2012). Turning Personal Experience into Political Attitudes: The Effect of Local Weather on Americans’ Perceptions about Global Warming. The Journal of Politics, 74 (03), 796-809 DOI: 10.1017/S0022381612000448

Finucane, M., Slovic, P., Mertz, C., Flynn, J., & Satterfield, T. (2000). Gender, race, and perceived risk: The 'white male' effect. Health, Risk & Society, 2 (2), 159-172 DOI: 10.1080/713670162

Hamilton, L., & Keim, B. (2009). Regional variation in perceptions about climate change. International Journal of Climatology, 29 (15), 2348-2352 DOI: 10.1002/joc.1930

Kahan, D., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L., Braman, D., & Mandel, G. (2012). The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change, 2 (10), 732-735 DOI: 10.1038/nclimate1547

Lewandowsky, S., Gignac, G., & Oberauer, K. (2013). The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science. PLoS ONE, 8 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0075637

McCright, A., & Dunlap, R. (2010). Anti-reflexivity: The American Conservative Movement's Success in Undermining Climate Science and Policy. Theory, Culture & Society, 27 (2-3), 100-133 DOI: 10.1177/0263276409356001

McCright, A., & Dunlap, R. (2011). The Politicization of Climate Change And Polarization in The American Public's Views of Global Warming, 2001-2010. Sociological Quarterly, 52 (2), 155-194 DOI: 10.1111/j.1533-8525.2011.01198.x

McCright, A., Dunlap, R., & Xiao, C. (2014). The impacts of temperature anomalies and political orientation on perceived winter warming. Nature Climate Change, 4 (12), 1077-1081 DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2443

Oreskes, N. (2004). Beyond The Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change. Science, 306 (5702), 1686-1686 DOI: 10.1126/science.1103618

Stevenson, K., Peterson, M., Bondell, H., Moore, S., & Carrier, S. (2014). Overcoming skepticism with education: interacting influences of worldview and climate change knowledge on perceived climate change risk among adolescents. Climatic Change, 126 (3-4), 293-304 DOI: 10.1007/s10584-014-1228-7


  1. I definitely agree about education (or lack thereof) at an early age being a big factor as to why some people become denialists into adulthood. I also don't believe I received too environmental education on global climate change, however, what little I did brings me to my first question:

    Although I personally haven't looked too much into it to see if it's true, I remember one particular teacher told me that the earth has experienced changes like this before. You know, dramatic decreases and increases in temperature over time. So while, of course, we definitely are contributing to global climate change, what is your response to people who may take the information I mentioned and say, "Our minor impact is nothing in the grand scale of things - the earth's temperature has been changing like this for years! We don't have anything to worry about!"?

    And my second question is, why do you think that, as it seems, conservatives are more likely to deny global climate change and liberals are more likely to accept it? With my limited political knowledge, I'd be interested to see how that actually plays out.

    Hope my questions weren't too dumb, haha. Nice post, Nick, and I'll be eagerly waiting for your response.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Mykala.

      I think I remember that "particular teacher" as well. Historical, natural increases in global temperatures means have not been dramatic as she may have characterized. Regular cycles in the earth's climate tend to be slow and balanced. Greenhouses gases regularly balanced with oceanic chemistry such so that the greenhouse gases that were being emitted were balanced by the carbon in the oceans. In these situations, greenhouse gases served to balance the climate.

      There were times, however, when the temperature did rise dramatically, and we know that most of those were due to greenhouse gas emissions esp. carbon, i.e. exactly what's happening right now. We know that those rises had catastrophic effects; we also know that the current warming is/is going to be more catastrophic than anything ever experienced after similar rises in gas emissions. The answer is yes, we do go through these things regularly; however, the degree and rate at which current global warming is happening is alarming and dangerous beyond anything we've ever seen before under similar circumstances. Our impact is great, not small.

      As for why conservatives deny climate change more often than liberals, there is a multifaceted explanation. Conservativism, firstly, is a defensive political ideology. Its adherents defend against dramatic changes (i.e. they "conserve"), while liberals are more prone to suggest societal changes and promote them. ACC poses a threat to the defensive position of conservatives because it demands that we change our current behavior and policies to respond to this growing global threat. Meanwhile, that call for global action warrants globalist policy, something most conservatives would oppose (but neoliberals would embrace). Also meanwhile, the change in policy such as switching to environmentally friendly resources and means of energy production also poses a threat to big business, who benefit from the current state of affairs. While that sounds horrible, it's actually a very rational decision in defending their own interests and their constituencies. Lastly, it should be noted that the moral foundations for conservatism entail individualist philosophy. The idea that we all share a mutual responsibility to reduce our "carbon footprint" conflicts with this idea.

      These are actually very good questions, to which there are no 100% correct answers. Those were just my educated guesses.

      Sorry I got this to you late. Thanks again for commenting!

  2. "One cornerstone paper in Nature displayed that conservatives who are more scientifically or mathematically literate are even less likely than their liberal counterparts to accept global warming."

    I'd say you need to check your premises. You might want to ask yourself if perhaps those skeptical of AGW are doing so because they don't accept Appeal to Authority as a legitimate argument and demand a rigorous global circulation model with predictive capacity that doesn't decouple immediately from observed trends.

    1. What premises? I said the study showed that scientific literacy has the opposite effect on conservatives that it does for liberals. There are no premises to that statement because it lacks any argumentative structure. It's just a statement of fact.

      What appeal to authority has been committed here? Nice verbosity by the way. For my readers who don't quite understand what he just said, basically by "global circulation model" (he means General Circulation Model), he just means a model for climate change. We have those, but he's saying that the ones currently used are not consistent with current trends. They are.

      What's your argument, Alexander?

  3. We spend most of our time debating the theological issue - climate change: happening or not, man-made or not? - rather than deal;ing with the observable weather effects we are now experiencing, whether or not climate change is real or man-made. Climate change is moot. The thing to do is to prepare for the next weather emergency which we all know is coming - flood or drought, cold spell or heat wave, hurricane or tornado. Turns out that preparing for that next weather emergency tends to be climate change adaptation and the best of those preparations can be climate change mitigation as well.

    It also turns out that the scale at which real adaptation and mitigation is happening around the world is at the city scale. Mayors have to deal with the effects of weather emergencies much more directly than international agencies or national governments. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy were wake-up calls in the US. Typhoon Haiyun was a wake-up call in south Asia.

    It's good to understand the modus operandi of climate change denial but it's silly to dwell on it more than the practical advances all of us can agree to based upon preparing for the next weather emergency.

    Not dismissing your work here, just wishing that we weren't spending all of our time on debating deniers instead of doing what needs to be done.

    1. It's difficult to counter the effects of ACC when a large portion of the population believes it's not happening. That is what these debates are for -- the more people who know, the better.


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